Vancouver residents of a certain age can recall the roller-coaster years of the Pacific National Exhibition in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when the future of its annual fair was in jeopardy.
Residents living around Hastings Park wanted green space—and the only way to get that, it seemed, was to kick one of the city’s most popular attractions out to the suburbs.
So in 1996, the operator of the fair, the B.C.-government-owned PNE, announced that it would leave its long-time home in Hastings Park.
First the PNE was slated to move to Burns Bog in North Delta, until environmentalists started raising hell. Then its future home seemed to be Surrey, until that was scotched. At one point, it appeared as though the Molson Indy auto race was going to move to Hastings Park.
An NPA park commissioner in those days, David Chesman, even introduced a motion to get the board’s support for taking the PNE to court to force it out. In spite of this, the NPA–controlled council voted to extend the lease in the park, causing a near civil war within the centre-right municipal party.
Finally fed up with the controversies, the provincial government turned the PNE over to the City of Vancouver in 2004. The city wisely kept the then president and CEO, Mike McDaniel, in charge.
In response to the preceding years of chaos, McDaniel embarked on a mission to stabilize the PNE, which not only puts on an annual fair but also operates the Pacific Coliseum and the Playland amusement park.
He hired Shelley Frost, who had experience in the tech and arts industries, as the PNE’s vice president of sales and marketing. McDaniel and the other executives then set out to calm down the neighbours and put the city-owned company on a firmer financial foundation.
“Mike is fabulous,” Frost told the Georgia Straight during an interview in a corner office of the PNE administration building. “He was very focused on efficiency and making sure he was setting the PNE up for financial success. We’d gone through a lot of tumultuous times, and we had a lot of years of revenue swings.”
PNE hit its stride under city's ownership
One of the goals, according to Frost, was for the PNE to stop being a target for its opponents.
"We just wanted to hunker down and be good," she recalled.
She also wanted to consolidate all the various entities with a more harmonized message reflecting the values of the organization.
That meant combining several different websites into one. There also needed to be a sharper focus on digital marketing.
“We weren’t selling tickets online,” she recalled. “We were still very manual and cash-heavy.”
Over time, complaints by the neighbours diminished as the city and park board embarked on a long-term plan to turn Hastings Park into a more community-friendly venue. The old Empire Stadium, formerly home to the B.C. Lions and Vancouver Whitecaps, was converted to Empire Fields for sporting events for area residents.
The Sanctuary, a treed area containing a large pond and peaceful walkways, stretched through the middle of the park from Hastings Street to the fair’s old livestock barns.
A stream was daylighted in Creekway Park to connect the Sanctuary to New Brighton Park on Burrard Inlet, a new bicycle and pedestrian pathway was created, and the community became engaged for a new master plan for the park.
By 2018, the PNE was solidly back on track and McDaniel decided to accept a new job as the head of the Coast Mountain Bus Company.
That summer, Frost was named as his successor, just weeks before the fair was to begin.
“He set us up for great success,” Frost said. “It’s kind of the next leap forward with the master plan.”
In late 2019 or early 2020, the PNE board’s recommendations for the park’s master plan will go to city council.
“We’re getting close to the precipice of having some big decisions being made about being able to move some key projects forward that have been in planning for the past five or six years,” she noted.
Summer Night Concerts cover several decades
In the meantime, Frost is also looking forward to the PNE Fair, which runs from Saturday (August 17) to September 2, with two Mondays (August 19 and 26) off.
Frost has had a full year to put her stamp on this year’s event—and one of her priorities has been the Summer Night Concerts series.
Once upon a time, the PNE used to book acts like Wayne Newton, Jan and Dean, and tribute acts, including Elvis impersonators.
Not anymore. This year’s Summer Night Concerts Series includes much bigger names, including Billy Idol, Vince Neil of Mötley Crüe, Blue Rodeo, UB40, Colin James, Vanilla Ice, Burton Cummings, and other popular acts.
“I wanted to make sure that this concert lineup had the highest level of marquee interest to everybody—that you could see the ’70s, the ’80s, the ’90s, the 2000s,” Frost explained. “I made a very conscious decision to invest a little bit more in the concert lineup because we see the response and the payoff—and the way it generates excitement about the fair.”
For the price of admission into the fair, patrons get a chance to see these acts on the night they’re performing in the PNE Amphitheatre on site.
“Although there’s only 7,000 people that fit into the amphitheatre, we’ll see an attendance bump of anywhere from 5,000 to 20,0000 people between 5 and 8 o’clock,” Frost said. “So even if they’re not going to the show, they’re still coming to the grounds because they know it’s going to be a fabulous night at the fair.”
She's personally wanted Billy Idol to appear at the event for years. So last fall, she and the staff began working on recruiting him.
As for Blue Rodeo, Frost described the band as "the soundtrack of my late 20s".
The song "5 Days In May" was, according to her, "every road trip and party that I was ever at."
Another priority for Frost is making the most efficient use of space.
Anywhere between 6,000 and 10,000 people will show up to watch the SuperDogs shows at the Pacific Coliseum during the daytime. But she’s hoping to make better use of this large building in the evenings.
She also noted that the livestock buildings that are used for agricultural exhibits will be filled corner to corner with new attractions.
These will include kids’ tractor races and a big “buy local” promotion that’s being done in partnership with the provincial Ministry of Agriculture.
Family-night movies, including some that are still in theatres, will be shown on the hillside of the amphitheatre. And there will be more diversity in the entertainment offerings.
“There are some core things that people always say are ‘my favourites, and don’t take these away’,” she noted, “but they want to see evolution.”
The PNE Fair continues to be the largest employer of youths in B.C., with 2,000 to 2,500 hired for its two-week period. It’s a smooth-running machine, buttressed by a massive amount of research into what’s taking place at other fairs across North America.
“It’s an industry that we watch very carefully and we decipher what makes sense for us,” Frost said with a smile. “R & D can be research and development or, as some of the other fairs call it, rip-off and deployment.”